Westboro Baptist Church: “America’s Most Hated Family In Crisis”
America’s Most Hated Family reminded me of the opening of Blue Velvet. Green lawns are mowed, flowers watered, kids play tag in the church playground while their older siblings rehearse a dance to the tune of a Top 40 pop song on the basketball court. On the surface, everything and everyone seems normal, but spend a little more time with these kids and their parents, and the twisted fanatical roots underneath the well manicured lawns of the Westboro Baptist Church become clear.
Lynch’s small town cult classic is not a bad place to start when engaging with Louis Thoreux’s recent documentary America’s Most Hated Family. Certainly, the narratives are not the same, but the underlying feelings of unease, repulsion, and fascination are similar. Now, turn the volume up. Way up. What is subtle in Blue Velvet is shouted in America’s Most Hated Family; the voyeurism of Lynch’s characters becomes exhibitionism on the part of the members of the Westboro Baptist Church. Unlike Lynch, who conceived of the world in his film and therefore understands it inside and out, Theroux enters into the world of the Westboro Baptist Church as an outsider seeking to understand.
Theroux spent time with the Westboro Baptist Church, famous for their extreme homophobia and picketing of soldiers’ funerals, once before in 2007. Since then, the Church has become even more fanatical – counting the days until the end of the world and doubling their publicity and picketing efforts. In spite of all this, the Church is hemorrhaging members, particularly the children of the church’s founding generation. This is the titular crisis.
It’s no surprise then that Theroux’s focus is on the younger members of the Church. He speaks to several of the children, ranging from 9 to 18 years old. The church doctrine is engrained in each with varying levels of eloquence, but rarely any true comprehension. When the logic of their beliefs is questioned, the teenagers smile as they stumble, trying to combine their emotions (these issues often have to do with friendship, particularly friends of the other gender) with their dogma. With contradictions aplenty, compartmentalization is king.
Yet Theroux is not above scrutiny, either. Unlike other documentarians who try to limit their time on camera, Theroux is a very present narrator. He claims to be engaging with the Church in an endeavor to understand, on a human level, what motivates them. For the most part, he stays true to this agenda, but from his constant syllogistic prodding it’s clear that he also hopes to break down some of those compartmentalized walls and allow secular reality to clash with religious identity, resulting in a more humanistic perspective for the younger members.
Whether from Theroux and the other media crews that engage with the families, or something else, several of the younger members have broken with the Church. In interviews with two of them, it’s clear that the girls miss their families. When questioned, the defectors’ parents do their best not to discuss their feelings, and instead rely on church rhetoric to support their positions. Yet, by Theroux’s account, the families of the Westboro Baptist Church are tight-knit and loving (in spite of their occasional threats of banishment), as if all the scorn they’ve brought on themselves brings them closer. Still, with all their public hatemongering and private fearmongering, it would seem that the Westboro Baptist Church is more focused on severing ties than creating them.
Which brings me to my main question, which despite all of Theroux’s inquiries, was never answered: why must the Westboro Baptist Church be so hateful and combative in spreading their message? They would disagree with me, as they do with Theroux when he asks why they like upsetting people at their picket lines, and say that they aren’t being hateful. They claim their deeply offensive words and actions come from a place of love for their fellow human beings who have been lied to and now need to confront the truth to save themselves from eternal damnation. This conflation of love and hate is a perfect example of the contradictory and, at times, incomprehensible world that the members of the Westboro Baptist Church inhabit.
America’s Most Hated Family airs Friday 1/13 at 10PM ET/PT on National Geographic.
Note: The documentary originally aired on the BBC as America’s Most Hated Family In Crisis, but for the US version it is just America’s Most Hated Family.
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